Our twin and turbine aircraft are expensive to operate, and I occasionally wonder if the extra cost is worth it. But recently, I had to return from a trip to Phoenix via the airlines that very quickly corrected any doubt I had about the value of the business aircraft we operate – and often take for granted. It is a story that needs to be told more frequently.
It is a 2-hour and 15-minute trip from Seattle to Phoenix in the Lear 40, and we are scheduled to fly a customer and his family down there to watch the professional baseball players winter practice. The customer and his five family members arrive at about 6 p.m. at our home base airport (KBVS – about 50 miles north of Seattle) after a short traffic-free drive from their home. It is already dark, but the Lear is out on the ramp, brightly lit by the building’s floodlights and with a red carpet already in place by the entry door. The airplane is connected to external power; the cabin is nicely warm and smells of the coffee, which has just been freshly brewed in the small galley. A couple of bottles of expensive wine and high-quality champagne are cooling in the ice chest just under the cabinet containing crystal glasses. The customer pulls his car right up to the airplane’s baggage door after passing through the controlled gate, and the ramp guys load up their stuff. The car then gets parked about 150 feet away where it will stay at no charge until they return. All six passengers board at their leisure then sit in their choice of wide, reclining leather seats, loosen their shoelaces and comfortably stretch out their legs. I close the airplane door then conduct a short safety brief, making sure to point out the bathroom.
Seven minutes later and we are airborne, receiving our IFR clearance in the air, having made an expedited VFR departure from the non-towered airport. Twenty slightly bumpy minutes go by, and we cross the Columbia River southbound, topping out at FL410 where the moon is out and the air as smooth as glass. The seatbelt sign is turned off, and we can hear the wine and champagne bottles being opened and the slight tinkle of crystal as the passengers help themselves and settle in with their drink and selection of gourmet cheeses bought from a local supplier. Occasionally, they poke their heads into the cockpit to say hello and stare at the jet’s instrument display, the lighting of which we have turned down. With cloud tops in the mid-30s, the view forward at FL410 goes on forever and it is a beautiful night. Underneath us somewhere, we can hear airline traffic just below the tops and looking for a better ride.
An hour later, we are over Cedar City, Utah making a small dogleg from our filed direct routing in order to avoid the military airspace out to the west. Shortly after that, Salt Lake Center starts us down and clears us direct to the TENTS intersection, telling us to expect the BRUSR 1 arrival. The next controller clears us to descend via the published arrival but to keep the speed up to 300 knots or greater for traffic sequencing. Not a problem for us as we are seeing 360 knots with the FMS predicting we will be arriving 10 minutes earlier than planned. I turn around in my seat and tell our passengers we will be landing in 20 minutes. They look both surprised and disappointed as from their point of view, the flight has been way too short. Besides, there is still some champagne in the bottle, cheese on the plate and they are having a pleasant conversation.
On our first call, Phoenix approach assigns us the ILS to 26 but we tell them we are going to Cutter Aviation on the airport’s southwest corner and request 25L. Not a problem they say, and change our vector slightly while I reprogram the FMS. We are 5 miles out on final and ask the controller if they have any traffic behind us. He says no, all the airline traffic is going into 26. We tell him we plan to land long and exit at the end to avoid a long taxi. “Approved” is his brief reply. Our landing goes smoothly and is not followed by any harsh braking or full reverse thrust as we let the Lear run out nearly to the end of 25L, making the H3 exit which is immediately adjacent to Cutter. We are still rolling through the exit when the tower clears us to the FBO and tells us to stay on his frequency. One-hundred yards ahead, we can already see Cutter’s “follow me” car and two minutes later, pull up to their ramp where our customers’ rental car is already parked close to the Lear’s passenger door, with the engine running, heater on and trunk door open. Five minutes later and their baggage has been loaded in the car, and they thank us profusely for such a nice flight. We put the covers on the engines and arrive at our hotel just 10 minutes later.
The next morning, I am to return via airline as the Lear will be staying in Phoenix for a couple of days and I am needed back home. And that is where the “fun” begins.
Dispatch has me scheduled to return on an airline 737 flight that leaves PHX at 10:50 and arrives in SEA nearly three hours later. I ask the hotel clerk what time I should board their shuttle to the airport in the morning. He proceeds to make some comments about freeway traffic and TSA lines then says I should be on the shuttle no later than 0800. I cannot help but think the time it will take me just to get through the airport will be longer than our entire flight down from Seattle in the Lear.
I get up at 0600, eat the free hotel breakfast and board the shuttle as instructed at 0800. The TSA line was actually not too bad as it took only 25 minutes to get through, but then, of course, there was the business of putting my shoes and belt back on while repacking my case with items removed for closer inspection. Finally, I am ‘in’ and wind up walking about a half-mile to the assigned gate. Once there, I note there has been some seat assignment snafu, and I ask the gate agent if she can move me to a better seat, or perhaps upgrade me to first class. Not a chance she replies – the flight is overbooked already. So, I look around to find an empty place to sit and wait, only to find the upholstery on near every seat is torn or cracked with the dirty foam pad cushion showing through. Even in the days of my youth taking trips via Greyhound bus (and appropriately called “riding the dog”) do I have memories of public travel facilities being so poorly maintained.
Finally, boarding time arrives with a line of more than 180 people jostling for position, as if boarding first will somehow result in arriving earlier. I make my way to the assigned middle seat way in the back, only to find it is between two large, well-fed individuals who are very reluctant to get up and let me in. With some difficulty, I squeeze pass protruding knees into my allowed 17 inches of narrow seat space and put my small bag under the seat in front of me with the overhead being full. The passenger to the right says nothing but promptly pulls the window shade down to better see his computer. The one by the aisle on my left immediately returns to a loud personal phone call that my arrival interrupted. Both seem to regard the armrests separating us as their personal real estate with absolutely no trespassing allowed. I keep my elbows tight to the chest and try not to breathe too deeply.
As the 737 loads, the cabin gets warmer and warmer, with the smell of hot humanity becoming much more pervasive – sort of like a gym locker room. Finally, after every single seat is occupied, and all the luggage overheads brim with stuff that really should have gone in the hold below, the airplane is pushed back and taxis out. I can see through one of the few windows that is open that there is a line of Boeing and Airbus products at least nine airplanes long waiting in the line for takeoff. Eventually, we work our way up to the front of the line, and now clearly late for the departure, get airborne. The airplane climbs into the mid-30s, and for the next hour the seat belt sign stays on due to a continuous light chop. The cabin attendants stay put, strapped into their seats. Finally, when we get up near the Oregon border somewhere, they hurry by pushing heavy carts, smiling as best as they can and offering free pop and water, but beer and wine are at high-end downtown Seattle restaurant prices.
Soon, I hear the power come back, and we start a descent into the Seattle area. Unfortunately, SEA appears to be running their traffic to the south, so the 737 winds up well to the north of Paine Field (PAE), before finally turning around and connecting with the ILS into Runway 16. The landing leaves no doubt the airplane is on the ground, and with hard braking and a lot of noisy reverse thrust, the airplane hurriedly makes one of the mid-runway exits and proceeds to the ramp. But then, as we approach our gate, it appears it is not yet ready, so we sit there for another 10 minutes while ramp guys in small trucks hustle about clearing the space. When the airplane pulls up to the stop line and the seat belt sign is turned off, all 181 people onboard seem to stand up at once, as if doing so will somehow expedite disembarkation and get them home earlier. This, of course, does not help at all and another 20 minutes go by while people anxiously chase down their carry-ons placed in faraway bins because all others were full.
The return from my 2-hour Lear trip to PHX the night before has thus far used up 7 hours and I am still not done.
My next flight is the commuter trip from SEA to Bellingham (BLI), which is not scheduled to leave for another 2.5 hours. I wait around sitting on crowded and uncomfortable hard molded plastic seats, and try to read a paperback brought with me for this purpose. My reading, however, is interrupted by continued gate change announcements from the public address system, interspersed with loud recorded announcements from members of the Port of Seattle Commission pointing out the need to promptly report any unclaimed bags that might be left about – could be a bomb you know – and by the way, welcome to Seattle.
The turboprop flight from SEA to BLI takes only 35 minutes, but for some mysterious reason, they start boarding this relatively small airplane 45 minutes before the scheduled departure. Push back from the gate is on time, but then we are stuck in another long line of departing airline traffic. We finally get airborne and climb into a cloud layer where we stay bumping along for about half an hour. Our arrival at BLI is around 30 minutes late, but the gate is open and the disembarking process at this small airport fairly quick. I place an Uber call on my phone and 10 minutes later am headed on the half-hour trip back to BVS, which is where I departed from last night.
As I sit there making occasional small talk to the Uber driver who is from India, it occurs to me the trip down to PHX in the Lear was a relaxed 2 hours, with just minutes of pre-boarding and post boarding folderol. The airline trip back from PHX however, has thus far taken nearly 12 hours with a good eight of those hours standing in lines, or just sitting around in crowded and uncomfortable surroundings. Even the 3.5-hour portion of the return trip that was actually airborne was not at all for someone opposed to close personal contact with complete strangers, or in possession of a bottom much wider than 17 inches.
Domestic airline travel has seemingly become a public commodity, with any suggestion that it should be convenient, comfortable or timely long forgotten. Sorry to say, but even “riding the dog” during my teenage years was a better experience than airline travel is today. Our twin and turbine airplanes may be expensive to operate, but given the alternative, they are “cheap at any price.”